Identity Theft: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Tips to help you avoid identity theft
What is Identity Theft
To better understand how to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, let’s define the problem, first. Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information – your name, credit card numbers, and social security number – to impersonate and steal from you.
This information is vital to your life and needs to be protected now more than ever. Let’s work on how you can avoid being an easy target and a victim of identity theft.
What do Identity Thieves Want?
The first step in avoiding identity theft is to understand the information that criminals are trying to take from you. They will be working to take information like:
- Your social security number
- Any credit card numbers
- Financial information
- Sensitive documents
- Birth date
- Email address
- Login Credentials
- Home address
- Phone numbers
- And much more sensitive information
The reason identity thieves want this personal data is to better convince your financial institution or medical provider that they are you so they can get your money, health benefits, or even more information.
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How to Prevent Identity Theft
Let’s take a look at how we can prevent identity theft from happening to us by looking at the problems and solutions to protecting our personal information.
Phishing and Spoofing Scams
Frequently, identity thieves will pose as a legitimate service that you do business with. They will impersonate an employee of that company through an email phishing scam or fraudulent phone calls.
If you don’t know, phishing is a type of online scam that targets consumers by sending them an email that appears to be from a trusted source. But it is in fact an attempt to get individuals to submit their information freely to the scammer.
That personal data is taken for nefarious reasons like creating fraudulent accounts with the name and details of a real person. Scams like this can also appear in social media posts and Google search results.
To avoid this type of scam to steal your identity, don’t trust emails and links. If you receive an email alerting you to a problem with your account, do not click the links in that email. Simply call the company or open a web browser and go directly to their official site to resolve the problem.
Create Strong Passwords
You’d be surprised at how common it is for people to reuse simple passwords that can be guessed or hacked easily. There is a goldmine of information for a scammer who can get into your real accounts and pose as you to steal your money and data.
I hate to tell you, but you can’t protect your email address with “password1234” anymore. You must use strong passwords that have at least 12 characters to protect your online accounts. Antivirus company Avast has some great ideas to help you create strong passwords.
It may help you to think about passwords as passphrases. Think of them as short sentences instead of a word and numbers. For example, “password1234” can be made much more secure by using “MyPasswordIs1234!”. (This is only an example, please do not use these.) Here we see the simple use of upper- and lower-case letters, 17 total characters, and a special character that was not there before. Plus, this is still easy for you to remember.
Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)
An extra step that I recommend to everyone with online accounts is to set up two-factor authentication (2FA) as a backup to your strong password. The extra layer of 2FA creates a secondary way that a credit card company or bank can verify that it is really you who is signing into your accounts.
An example of two-factor authentication is using a text message verification when logging into your online banking to access your bank accounts. When signing into an online bank account, you’ll be required to enter a username and password. Then you’ll see a prompt to have a special code texted to your smartphone for an extra step of real-time verification.
It only takes a second to do and it can be the difference in keeping your accounts safe from thieves. Keep in mind you must set up your phone number in advance when you set up your banking account. If you do not have this feature turned on, then contact your bank or credit card company and ask them to help you set up two-factor authentication.
Many times, usernames and passwords are doxed in data breaches. But with 2FA turned on, thieves won’t be able to access your online accounts with only a username and password. This will keep your bank account number and other valuable data under one more layer of protection. While having this extra step can seem tedious at times, it’s worth it in the long run.
Review Credit Card and Bank Statements
Many times, an identity thief can successfully scam us without us even knowing that it’s happened. There can be enough data on us on the dark web to trick a retailer into thinking we are making purchases that we’re not. So we must be vigilant in looking for fraudulent charges on our debit card and credit cards.
One way to spot suspicious activity on an account is to review the purchases on the bill. Many credit card companies send line-item transactions in their monthly bill. Review each of the purchases to make sure they are legitimate and report any that are not to the fraud department. I do this every month.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that scammers will only make high-dollar fraudulent transactions in your name. Many times, a scammer will use multiple accounts to buy small things like gas, fast food, or gift cards at less than $50. They do this because those small amounts don’t stand out on the bill. A scammer can use a card for months just by making small transactions to continually steal from you without raising suspicion. It happens to the best of us.
Many financial instructions will offer free fraud monitoring. I’ve gotten several fraud alert notifications that my credit cards had been compromised that I would not have caught as quickly as the company did. Most of the time, the company can detect a fraudulent charge within minutes of it happening to minimize the damage done to your account. If your financial institutions offer this, make sure you opt-in to this security measure.
Collect Your Mail
Before the internet, identity thieves would steal the mail right out of your mailbox. They could get bank statements, social security information, and even medical account data. While the world has gotten safer when it comes to protecting your personal information, don’t forget the importance of collecting your mail every day. This is an old-school solution to today’s problems.
Monitor Credit Reports
Discovering suspicious activity on your credit reports, such as new accounts you don't recognize, is a quick way to identify potential fraud. You may not realize it, but you can get a free copy of your credit report annually. You can request free copies of your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com.
This means you’ll see data from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax all in one place. If you like, you can also get a free report directly from each of the three companies. Regardless of how you get your free credit report, take the time to comb through it to look for any suspicious activity. If something does not look right, reach out to the credit reporting company to get clarification, or start the process of taking action to protect yourself.
Freezing Your Credit
Not only do identity thieves mess up your life, but they can also ruin your credit score and good name. A way to prevent that is to freeze your credit. You only really need it when you make a large purchase like a home or by opening new lines of credit with the credit card companies. Other than those times, keeping it locked up is a great idea.
For adults, freezing your credit is fairly easy. This article from Experian will share with you what you need to know before you place a security hold on your cred.
But let’s take this one step further and think about our children’s identity.
Protecting Your Child’s Identity
What most people don’t think about, understandably, is that their children’s credit is at risk too. I know you are wondering how that’s possible as your kids are like 4 months and 3 years old, right? If a person has a social security number, they’re at risk of credit fraud and identity theft.
And no, when companies run social security numbers for credit information, the process does not include the age, race, or gender of the holder. So a 40-year-old Caucasian man can pass for a 4-year-old Hispanic girl without anyone knowing. That’s why this type of scam is so easy.
This is why it’s important to freeze your children’s credit, so you can protect them well into the future. It’s one of the best ways to set them up for future financial success. I’d hate for your kids to need a loan for a car at 20 and find out someone ruined their credit a decade earlier because someone bought a boat in their name and then defaulted on the loan.
I urge you to consider freezing your child’s credit. I’ve done this for my son, and I’ve created a step-by-step guide on how to do it right the first time. You can download How to Freeze Your Child’s Credit for free.
Identity Theft: Data Brokers
As we wrap up, there is one more way identity thieves can obtain your personal data. They can buy it… legally. Yes, that is weird to think, but data brokers sell your data to companies that host people search sites. On these sites, anyone can search for your information like your home address, phone numbers, work history, relatives, and email addresses. For cheap anyone can find out this information on you. Creepy, right?
That’s why I use DeleteMe to remove my personal information from sketchy people search sites. I’ve been a customer since 2018 and I very much appreciate the value in their services. You can read my full review of it. Plus, you can get 20% off a privacy plan of your choice when you use the discount code DAD at checkout.
How to Report Identity Theft
If you have your identity compromised, do not feel ashamed. It happens to good people every day. Don’t be embarrassed to get the problem fixed. I’ve had my credit cards compromised several times over the years and I know that it isn’t a reflection on who I am. In fact, it helps me to better write articles like this one to help other people.
The first thing you will want to do to report identity theft is to contact The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) online at IdentityTheft.gov or call 1-877-438-4338.
Then contact all three major credit reporting agencies and ask them to place fraud alerts and a credit freeze on your accounts. Once that is in motion, contact the fraud department at your credit card company, bank, and other places where you have valuable accounts. Once that is set up, contact your local law enforcement department, and file a police report with them.
Avoiding Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft
Your private information means a lot to you and if in the wrong hands can be invaluable to identity thieves. By taking the steps above you’ll be in a much better position to fend off any ID theft attacks that come your way. Remember to be vigilant, identity theft is an everyday occurrence.